City earns high marks for water

Citing New Haven’s high level of air pollution and their dislike of the taste of the city’s water, many Yalies said they are skeptical about the quality of the water that comes out of their faucets.

Jamaica native Jeff Brown ’09 said tap water in New Haven simply does not compare to the water at home. Like many other students, Brown and his suitemates always use a Brita filter to clean their water before drinking it.

“Water here is just not as good as in Jamaica,” he said. “Granted, it is worse in some other U.S. cities, but the taste took some getting used to.”

But according to health experts, Yalies can rest assured that they are safe in the Elm City without their Britas. New Haven’s municipal water supply does not pose any public health problems, said Paul Kowalski, the New Haven Health Department’s director of environmental health.

New Haven has an extensive program of water quality testing, which involves collecting water at the end of the distribution system — when it comes out of a faucet — and performing a large battery of tests on it. These tests look for bacteria, background salts, heavy metals and organic compounds ranging from pesticides to solvents — essentially, anything that is considered a public health risk.

Elm City water is regulated by the Regional Water Authority, a large company that has the resources to impose higher standards than federal requirements and can perform tests at a higher frequency than required, experts said.

Tom Barger, water quality supervisor at the Regional Water Authority, said New Haven accepts verbatim the regulations put forth by the Department of Public Health and that the company must act in accordance with all of these stipulations. He said New Haven water is undoubtedly safe to drink and is always in compliance with regulations.

“New Haven has never received a level of violation,” he said.

The only problems with New Haven’s water quality on the consumer end are superficial ones, such as taste, environmental chemistry professor Gaboury Benoit said.

“The big complaint about water quality [in New Haven] is the faint chlorine odor and taste, which is there intentionally and needed to prevent bacteria growth,” he said. “There are three options in this case: to ignore it, to let the water stand overnight, or to pass it through point-of-rise filters, like a Brita.”

Benoit said the difference in water taste from one region to another can also be attributed to the water’s source for a given location. New York City, for example, always performs extremely well in taste tests, he said, because one of its primary water sources is the Catskills Mountains, which are about 100 miles away from the city.

New Haven’s water comes from a combination of sources, including both reservoirs and ground water supplies. It draws from natural sources such as Lake Saltonstall, Lake Gallard and the West River, in addition to a few wells that remain on the periphery of the city.

Michael Hage, section supervisor in drinking water for Connecticut’s Department of Public Health, said the issue of taste is not a public health concern and should not be given bearing in determining the quality of water in one city as opposed to another.

“People like to brag about these things,” he said. “The bottom line for what we and the federal government look for is if you are meeting standards and are within parameters.”

When cities boast that they have the best-tasting water in the country, they might be referring to national taste tests in which designated water tasters compare samples from various locations, Hage said.

“Selection is only indicative of the person and is no measure of the safety and purity of drinking water,” he said. “In fact, sometimes water with organic chemicals tastes better because it is sweeter.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act, originally passed in 1976 and most recently amended in 1996, proposes the federal government’s water quality standards. Mark Sceery, the Connecticut public water system coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA delegates the task of enforcing these regulations to the states, which must in turn report back to the national agency. Sceery said the relationship is like a partnership, and that the federal government is not involved in the details of individual states.

“States have to adopt regulations at least as stringent as [those of] the federal government,” Sceery said. “Most states typically stick to the federal rules, with some minor differences.”

Sceery said that like most New England states, Connecticut — which is regulated by the its own Department of Public Health — is generally reliable in terms of compliance.

Based on the federal rules and the state’s own regulations, drinking water must be tested for a number of contaminants in varying degrees of frequency, Hage said. For example, water must be tested for some bacteria on a daily basis, while tests for most organic and inorganic compounds must be carried out annually. These thorough tests also measure levels of nitrate, nitrite, lead, copper, pesticides and herbicides, and Connecticut’s water continuously performs well, Hage said.

“We don’t have any violations,” he said. “And if there are any, we are required to notify the public.”

In the case of water from wells, Barger said the wells’ locations affect the quality of their water and that they must be tested based on these conditions.

Hage said the source of the water for any given location determines its hardness or softness. In larger cities, he said, where primary sources of water include reservoirs and lakes, the water is termed soft. Well water, on the other hand, is classified as hard. Despite popular opinion, the distinction between hard and soft water has no impact on public health or the safety of the drinking water, Hage said. Hard water, however, has an increased concentration of calcium and magnesium, which can affect the lifespan of household appliances by forming deposits within the piping.

“The only visible difference is that with soft water, you need less soap and need more time to get shampoo out of your hair,” he said.

Barger said adherence to the EPA’s policies is the most important criterion in determining water quality.

“If you comply with the law here or in California, then you’re still in compliance,” he said. “We all have to comply with the same rulebook, and we’re in pretty good shape.”

Still, some students are reluctant to fill their glasses straight from New Haven’s sinks.

Karrin Weisenthal ’09 said she and her suitemates always use filters to purify their tap water. She said drinking filtered water is something she has done for years, and New Haven water has always seemed particularly suspect to her.

“Bottled and filtered water just tastes better — there really is no science about it,” she said. “Plus, when I was little, I used to keep goldfish and they always died; that is, until I started using Sparkletts bottled water instead of that from the tap. I had one that lived two years in a bowl filled with bottled water, so I figure that if tap water kills off goldfish, there has to be something in it that is not good for my body.”

Mark Wilson ’09 also said he is suspicious of the quality of New Haven’s water.

“It’s not like I’m brushing my teeth with bottled water or anything,” he said. “But let’s just say I’ve had to make serious compromises in my rinsing process.”

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